Welcome to Fort Kochi in Kerala, where Portuguese-Dutch architecture, great seafood, and surprising cafes come together to create one vibrant travel destination. Here’s how to get the most out of your visit. Words by Margaret Barca
This pocket of Kerala is laid back, if a tad gritty, with Portuguese-Dutch colonial architecture, friendly locals, great seafood, boutique hotels and a dash of hip cafés.
Like India, Fort Kochi is a crazy mix. Waving palms and historic fishing nets are often interrupted by the passing swollen bodies of container ships.
Here’s how to get the best out of it….
If you’re after authenticity, and like to eat like a local – or a local tourist (and Indians love to visit Fort Kochi) – head towards the fishing nets.
Choose your fish from a fishmonger, take it to a nearby stall and have it cooked (for around $2). Follow with a fresh coconut juice – a stall owner will lop the top and drop in a straw for about 25 cents – or perhaps a sweet chai from a street stall for around 10 cents.
There are plenty of rustic seafood restaurants, just follow the pungent, spicy fried-fish fragrance.
David Hall Gallery & Café, 1/264 Princes Street:
Behind a Dutch colonial façade, lies a serious art gallery (India’s first Biennale was held here at the end of 2012) and in the tranquil garden lies a simple but casual café with French-style pastries, good coffee, and a wood-fired oven for pizza on par with anything outside (or even in) Italy… really.
Kashi Art Café, Burgher Street:
This is a small contemporary art gallery with a cool-vibe courtyard café (where you’ll hear Sinatra crooning in the background).
Top-notch chocolate cake, soup and healthy fruit and veg salads are on the menu. A great spot to chill-out.
Ginger House Restaurant, Jew Town Road, Mattancherry:
After your foray into the antique and faux-antique warehouses of the area, stop in for a feed at this open-air restaurant looking across to Willingdon Island; it catches a breeze and serves tasty simple curries, sandwiches and zingy fresh lime and ginger soda.
Malabar Junction, Malabar House, 1/268 Parade Road:
Junction is right: ocean-fresh seafood meets Southern Indian meets sophisticated fusion cuisine.
Seriously delicious with stylish surroundings and thoughtful service.
Mains around $12 but wine is expensive, of course.
There’s a bar too – Divine (that’s what it’s called).
1788 Restaurant, Old Harbour Hotel, 1/328 Tower Road:
This restaurant offers a nightly seafood barbecue, subtle south Indian vegetarian curries, majestic trees and twinkling lights glinting off the pool.
Service was a smidgen offhand, though.
Mains around $10, lavish seafood platters are more.
Brunton Boatyard, 1/498 Calvetty Road:
It can be a little noisy here with ferries chugging in and out – but hey, this is a working port after all.
The building is colonial-style and the bar has water views, with a lovely breeze off the river.
Shades of the British Raj are evident if you choose the First Class Railway Mutton Curry, but there is more sophisticated fare, vegetarian curries (naturally) and a swag of seafood dishes.
The wood-panelled History & Terrace Grill is the main restaurant.
Mains around $10.
Chinese fishing nets:
The famed Chinese fishing nets are weatherworn teak and bamboo-framed nets that hang like spidery predators over the water’s edge.
Tough, wiry fishermen, usually clad in traditional check waistcloths or mundi, hoist the rope pulleys, weighted with (literally) a tonne of stones to lower the net into the water.
Fishermen walk precariously along the poles adjusting the net. After a while, they hoist the net and scoop out the fish.
A definite photo opportunity – but make sure you tip… in fact, their tips are probably more lucrative than the catch.
Early each morning, you’ll see seer fish, barracuda, prawns, crabs, small sharks and the occasional stingray piled high on ice in baskets and on wonky tables in the open air.
Stray cats choosing the occasional tasty morsel don’t seem to worry the locals.
Take a tuk-tuk:
Some of India’s shiniest tuk-tuks navigate the narrow streets and drivers often have a fine line in patter – “book my Ferrari, all air-con,” they say.
And that’s true, but only because there are no windows! Bargain with them, or politely say no.
However, for around $2 you can be dropped at most key tourist spots for a few hours and the driver will wait.
(Be warned – if drivers insist you go to certain shops and you buy from there, you’ll be paying a commission.)
Mattancherry and the synagogue:
Kochi’s bounty of spices and goods such as ginger, mace, nutmeg, betel nut and rice were stored in Mattancherry’s warehouses before being shipped.
Most warehouses are now shops but you can sometimes still glimpse huge bundles of chilli or sacks of rice awaiting shipping.
Mattancherry Palace (built in 1557) has some extraordinary Ramayana paintings (open daily except Friday).
Kochi Synagogue was built in 1568 and has an eclectic mix of timber, crystal lamps and blue-and-white Cantonese tiles.
It’s also the oldest still in use in India. (Open Sunday to Thursday)
The best of the highly stylised Kathakali artists who perform this dance-drama are mesmerising.
Kerala Kathakali Centre has nightly shows.
St Francis Church:
Possibly India’s oldest Christian church St Francis began c.1516. Vasco da Gama was buried here but his body later returned to Portugal. (Open daily)
Kerala is home to Ayurveda – an ancient system using herbs, oils and massage for balance and harmony.
A body massage or sirodhara (oil pouring on the third eye) is a must-do while here.
Indulge at one of the boutique hotel spas.
The streets of Jew Town near the synagogue are busy with tourist shops selling cotton kurtas, silver and gemstone jewellery, Kashmiri scarves, spices, Ayurvedic herbs and ‘antique’ shops such as Crafters.
Conveniently, most shops can ship.
Sleek gallery-like spaces and an understated international ambience at Cinnamon is the setting for up-market Indian designer fashion, jewellery and homewares, including some clever up-cycling.
Nearby, the tiny Fabindia (part of an Indian chain) has bolts of interesting fabric stacked high and a select range of clothing. Idiom bookshop, in Princess Street, has an amazing selection of books to browse.
There’s a booming business in homestays, from very basic to quite smart. Don’t necessarily expect a room with a view and, if you don’t fancy the heat, check if they have fans and air-con.
Remember, the lower the tariff, usually the dodgier the air-con. From $35 twin room. See fortcochinhomestays.com
Malabar House, 1/269 Parade Road:
This is an elegant, arty, boutique hotel in a handsome heritage building opposite the Parade ground, with the Relais & Chateaux stamp of approval.
The white walls feature pops of brilliant colour and folk art, but it’s not too precious.
Ask about the first-floor garden suites and try out the great restaurant and spa.
From $340 including tax for a deluxe double, high season.
The Old Harbour Hotel, 1/328 Tower Road:
Featuring Portuguese/Dutch colonial architecture, shuttered windows and sweeping red-tiled roofs, with crisp white interior walls, a cool foyer, dark timbers and carved-teak furniture – the Old Harbour Hotel is the perfect retreat from the town’s steamy heat.
Not to mention the swimming pool, lovely breakfasts and, on a balmy evening, the leafy garden makes a nice spot for an icy Kingfisher beer.
From $200 including tax for a garden view, high season.
Visas are needed for India and must be applied for before you arrive.
Allow at least an hour to/from Cochin international airport if going by taxi (or up to two hours by bus). You can book a pre-paid taxi at the airport on arrival for around $16.